How Great the Agony of Reformation: T.F. Torrance (and Epiphanius) on the Deviant Dogma of Mary’s Bodily Assumption

Today, the 15th of August, is the feast day of the bodily assumption of Mary, formally promulgated as Roman Catholic dogma and necessary to saving faith by Pope Pius XII on 1 November 1950. While this dogma is an obligatory article of belief for roughly half of the world’s professing Christians, I, like my Reformation forebears, must ardently protest it as a deviation of the apostolic tradition delivered once for all to the saints in Holy Scripture. Indeed, as Reformed theologian T.F. Torrance explains below, the dogma celebrated today is so great a deviation that it calls into question, if not wholly obliterates, the Catholic Church’s claim to apostolicity. Torrance writes:

Perhaps the most stunning fact about the proclamation of the [dogma of the assumption of Mary] is the way in which the Roman Church has sought to justify it: on another foundation than that of the prophets and apostles upon which the whole Church is built…. Far from there being any Scriptural authority for the idea it is actually contrary to the unique eschatological character of Christ’s Resurrection and7f61a57a88511b972464b0e6c4abd654--catholic-saints-roman-catholic Ascension, and the unique relation this bears to the resurrection of all who will rise again at the Parousia; in fact it turns the assumption of Mary into one of the saving acts of God alongside the salvation-events of Christ Himself.

Far from there being any justification for the notion in the tradition of the Church, even after the sixth century the liturgy of the feast of the Assumption of Mary regularly speaks of her dormitiopausatio, and transitus animae, with never a word about a physical assumption…. In no sense therefore can the new dogma be said to fulfil the requirements of the Vincentian canon: [what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all] [for further justification of this point, see the quote from Epiphanius below]. The horrifying thing about this dogma therefore is not only that it has no biblical or apostolic foundation, but that here quite plainly the Roman Church claims to be able to produce at will “apostolic tradition” out of itself. In other words, here where the Pope exercises for the first time the authority given him by the Vatican Council of 1870, he both lays claim to be able to produce dogmatic truth, and to do that apart from apostolic legitimation….

This inevitably has the most far-reaching consequences for ecumenical discussions with Roman Catholics. The Evangelical Church takes its stand upon the words of the Lord in St. John’s Gospel which declare that the Spirit of Truth will not speak anything of Himself but recalls the Church to all things which Christ has said, and so leads it into all Truth. Bound thus to the Holy Spirit speaking through the Scriptures, the Evangelical Church can only be profoundly shocked both at the extent of Roman deviation from the apostolic teaching and at the fundamental renunciation of the apostolic foundation which this involves. Add to this the fact that the Vatican Council, which gave the Pope the authority he has used, declares also that such ex cathedra definitions of dogma are “in and from themselves irreformable”, and it becomes perfectly apparent that the Roman Church can never go back to the apostolic foundation for correction and reform.

The second important fact we must note about the new dogma is that it brings Roman Catholic Mariology to its crowning point. The Evangelical Church recognizes the unique place of Mary in the Gospel as the mother of Jesus Christ the Son of God, and will not separate its thought of her from the divine act of the Incarnation. But it recognizes also that Mary was a sinner who herself in the Magnificat acknowledged a Saviour, and it remembers that on the Cross Jesus gave Mary His earthly mother to be the mother of John, clearly declaring that with His death His relation to her was not to be continued as it was before. She stood there one with the other sinners whose sins He was bearing as the Lamb of God, and as such came under the judgment of the Cross as well as its redemption.

Roman theology has, however, for long been in the process of extracting Mary from the communion of the Church of redeemed sinners, and separating her from the fellowship of the faithful…. More significant still, however, is the fact that the Roman Church has, through some communicatio idiomatum, been transferring to Mary the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. The Scriptures teach us that there is salvation in none other than Jesus Christ, for there is none other name given among men whereby we must be saved. He only is Mediator, is Son of God, is King. But precisely parallel with these divine attributes we find the Roman Church speaking of Mary as Maria Mediatrix et Corredemptrix … Now that Mary is declared to have ascended into heaven like Christ, we have promulgated the last stage in this parallelism between Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Let us be quite fair. The Roman Catholic Church does not teach any absolute likeness or identity of being and work between Christ and Mary, for Mary is a creature who has received divine favour… If Christ is Lord and King in his own right, Mary is regarded as Queen on the ground of Christ’s work, and as His helper, but as such she so enters into the very redemptive work of Christ and so belongs to the great salvation-events that Mariology definitely becomes a part of Roman Christology. The physical assumption of the Virgin Mary means that she is taken up into the divine sphere, and that it is there that she belongs rather than to the Church that waits to see its Lord and become like Him. What confusion this brings to the apostolic faith!…

Here at last the Roman Church has taken a definite step which calls in question its apostolicity…. To be the One, Holy, Catholic Church means that throughout all the changes of history until the Second Advent of Jesus Christ the Church is and remains identical with itself … in that it maintains the teaching of the apostles in the obedience of faith, and does not alter its nature by changing its foundation, by subtracting from it or adding to it other than that which has already been laid. Therein lies the apostolicity of the Church of Jesus Christ. But now that the Roman Church has taken a step which inevitably calls in question its apostolicity, Protestants are aghast…. In our brotherly responsibility which as the Evangelical Church we bear toward them we pray for them, and pray the more earnestly knowing how great is the agony of Reformation.[1]

Like Torrance, the Reformers in the 16th century decried, rightly in my view, Catholic Mariology as heretical insofar as it is contrary to Scripture and foreign to the early catholic church of the fathers. This is nowhere more clearly seen than in the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption. No doubt Catholics will counterprotest this claim. However, I would simply point them to what may be the earliest extant tradition on this issue written by the 4th century bishop of Salamis Epiphanius in his assault against heretical sects:

And there have been many such things to mislead the deluded, though the saints are not responsible for anyone’s stumbling; the human mind finds no rest, but is perverted to evils. The holy virgin may have died and been buried—her falling image1asleep was with honor, her death in purity, her crown in virginity. Or she may have been put to death—as the scripture says, “And a sword shall pierce through her soul”—her fame is among the martyrs and her holy body, by which light rose on the world, [rests] amid blessings. Or she may have remained alive, for God is not incapable of doing whatever he wills. No one knows her end.

But we must not honor the saints to excess; we must honor their Master. It is time for the error of those who have gone astray to cease. Mary is not God and does not have her body from heaven but by human conception, though, like Isaac, she was provided by promise. And no one should make offerings in her name, for he is destroying his own soul. But neither, in turn, should he be insolent and offer insult to the holy Virgin.[2]

There it is, clear testimony from the Catholic Church’s own revered tradition that, at the time of Epiphanius’s writing, Mary was neither honored “to excess” by receiving “offerings” nor was her bodily assumption part of the apostolic faith which Epiphanius had received, defended against heresy, and then handed on to future generations. Thus, Torrance is fundamentally right when he states that the bodily assumption of Mary does not meet the Vincentian criteria for catholic dogma, since it clearly was not, at least in Epiphanius’s day, believed everywhere, always, and by all. Hence, it should never have been declared such by Pope Pius XII, and the fact that it was throws the legitimacy of the Catholic Church’s claim to apostolicity into serious doubt.

And that’s putting it nicely.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 157-160, 162.

[2] Frank Williams, trans., The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Book II and III (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994), 635-636. Thanks to Beggars All for directing me to this source.

No Common Gospel: Why Catholic Mariology Is Still an Insurmountable Obstacle to Full Christian Unity

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In the latest ecumenical news, Vatican Radio reports that the World Communion of Reformed Churches has signed on to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification first drafted by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999. The report states:

The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has released a note regarding the association of the Reformed Churches to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), calling the occasion an “important milestone”. The Joint Declaration was signed between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, with the World Methodist Council adopting the document in 2006. On Wednesday, 5 July 2017 the World Communion of Reformed Churches becomes the fourth party to associate itself to the doctrine on Justification as accepted by Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists…. Though a milestone in ecumenical relations and “the full, visible unity of Christians”, the note says the event is “not yet the end of the road but a significant stage on the way.”

The Vatican statement goes on to say:

The doctrine of justification by grace through faith is at the heart of the Gospel. Agreement in understanding how the salvation brought by Christ actually becomes effective in sinful humans is of high importance for ecumenical progress. The Reformed Churches will now affirm the consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification as corresponding to Reformed doctrine. One of the crucial issues of dissent between the Reformers and the authorities of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century is thus being diffused and overcome, making further growth in spiritual and ecclesial communion between the Protestant and Catholic Churches possible….

In this way, ecumenical progress in dialogue is not merely an academic pursuit of interested experts, but has a positive and practical influence on the way Christians of different confessions live and work together in solidarity and bear common witness to the Gospel in society. [full text]

Now regardless of whatever we may think of either the Joint Declaration or the WCRC’s adherence to it, the general feeling seems to be substantially the same as the Vatican’s statement: yes, differences and difficulties still remain, but we are all able to agree on “the heart of the gospel” and so we can affirm a certain measure of unity and even engage together in evangelization.

Now my goal is not to be, as the Italians would say, a guastafeste (i.e. killjoy, wet blanket, party pooper), but there are a number of glaring problems with this interpretation of recent events. Underlying the 16th-century disagreement over justification (sola gratia, sola fide) is the question of the sole mediatorship of Christ (solus Christus), something which, at least in terms of Protestant relations with the Catholic Church, is conveniently left to the side. To be more precise, the whole question of Catholic Mariology seems to be ignored. Contrary to certain opinions, the issue of Mary’s role vis-à-vis Christ’s mediatorship and human salvation is not a peripheral issue. Protestants must remember that ever since the ex cathedra (i.e. binding and irreformable) declaration of Munificentissimus Deus by Pope Pius XII in 1950, the doctrine of the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven is, in official Catholic teaching, necessary to believe for salvation. T.F. Torrance observes:

Now that the Munificentissimus Deus has been proclaimed, and the dogma of the physical assumption of the Virgin Mary has become for Roman Catholics necessaryfor saving faith, … Evangelical theology delivers its soul and in the most brotherly spirit warns the Roman Church of the dire consequences of its action, not only for the Ecumenical Church but even for the Church of Rome itself….

The Church that has the promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it is the Apostolic Church. To be the One, Holy, Catholic Church means that through all the changes of history until the Second Advent of Christ the Church remains identical with itself in its apostolic foundation in Christ, and that it maintains faithfully the teaching of the apostles as delivered in the Holy Scriptures, and does not alter its nature by changing its foundation in the faith, by subtracting from it or by adding to Munificentissimus titleit other than that which has been laid in Christ. The Church which refuses to be conformed to the apostolic Scriptures, which declines to be reformed and cleansed and purged by the Word of Truth mediated through the apostles, thereby declares that it is no longer identical with its foundation in Christ, and that it is not the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. By calling in question its Apostolicity it denies its Catholicity.

The grave charge which we in the Evangelical Church lay against the Roman Church is that it has increasingly subtracted from the sole Mediatorship of Christ and has increasingly corrupted itself through improvisations in doctrines, sacraments and ministries…. [T]he dogma of the physical Assumption of Mary is the most blatant deliberate attempt by the Roman Church to invent a doctrine (out of its own popular piety) knowing that it has no apostolic foundation, and knowing that it was contrary to centuries and centuries even of the Roman Church’s tradition. The fact that so-called relics of Mary’s body lie scattered about in older centres of Roman piety is standing witness that the Roman Church is no longer semper eadem, no longer identical with the Church that taught the death of Mary.

It has thus finally and decisively shattered its own continuity, and, apart altogether from the Tridentine anathemas, has made unity with the Evangelical Churches who remain faithful to the apostolic foundation in Christ quite impossible…, and therefore we cannot but pray for our erring friends in the Roman Church that they may be delivered from heresy and may return to the integrity of the Catholic and Apostolic faith in Jesus Christ. [Conflict and Agreement in the Church, Vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 156, 166-167]

There would be much on which to comment here, but let me just highlight the absolutely critical point that Torrance makes regarding the impossibility of full and visible unity between Catholic and Evangelical churches. Even if we were to reach full agreement over the doctrines anathematized by Trent — or even if those anathemas were fully retracted (wishful thinking, I know) — it still would not bring Catholics and Protestants any closer to true unity. Why not? Because ever since 1950, the Catholic Church’s official and irreformable dogmatic position is that anyone who denies, or even casts doubt on, the bodily assumption of Mary, “has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith” and “will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul” (Munificentissimus Deus, 45, 47). As long as this doctrine stands, there can be no true unity between Catholics and Protestants, irrespective of whatever other areas of agreement, such as the Joint Declaration on Justification, may be found.

This issue, however, represents a far graver problem than merely the ecumenical one. As Torrance avers, it signals the definitive departure from the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of all ecclesial bodies that submit themselves to the bishop of Rome, whose line of succession presumed to declare with divine authority a doctrine that is wholly absent from its apostolic foundation. Regardless of whatever other issues there may be, Munificentissimus Deus removes all doubt as to the deviation of the Catholic Church from that which constitutes the universal consent of the early catholic church bequeathed to us in the ecumenical creeds. Even if the bodily assumption of Mary could be proven to be biblical teaching, Rome’s standing declaration that it is an irreformable article of saving faith constitutes a serious breach of faith with all those who simply confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. To think that somehow an agreement like the Joint Declaration could mark a “significant stage” on the way to full and visible unity between Catholic and Protestant churches is naive at best, deceptive at worst. According to Munificentissimus Deus, Protestants are damned, and thus the insurmountable obstacle to full Christian unity.

A Fellowship of Reconciliation: T.F. Torrance on Ecumenism as Mission (Reformission Monday)

For many evangelicals, “ecumenism” is a dirty word. I am sympathetic toward those who do, especially with the ways in which the term has been (mis)used and diluted into an amorphous soup of confessional relativism. At its heart, however, I think that “ecumenism” — not unlike the label “evangelical” as well! — has a richer significance than is often perceived or allowed. What I have in mind is what could be called “ecumenism as mission”. In many ways, this is simply another way of saying “reformation as mission”, in the sense that it is the form which Christian mission assumes in ecclesial contexts where conflicts have arisen and divisions have occurred. It is simply another facet of what Paul identified as the “ministry of reconciliation” in 2 Corinthians 5:18). Thus understood, ecumenism would mean the opposite of how it is frequently defined: not a sacrifice of truth for the pursuit of unity, but rather the pursuit of unity through mutual witness (with repentance and correction) to the truth.

Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance has greatly stimulated my thinking in this area. Torrance was a life-long advocate for and participant in ecumenical work. Torrance was also, at the same time, zealously committed to biblical fidelity and theological precision, which he believed was best encapsulated in the Reformed tradition. While many evangelicals would consider these two things to be fundamentally incompatible, Torrance did not. The reason for this, I think, is because of his underlying missionary drive that fueled every aspect of his life’s work. In other words, mission is, for Torrance, the point of reconciliation between growing stronger in doctrinal depth while expanding in ecumenical breadth. He writes:

That is what the Church is meant to be as the Body of Christ, a community of reconciliation ready to bring to men the healing of the Cross, and to live out in their midst the reconciled life, drawing them into its own fellowship of peace with God and with all men.

The tragedy is that the Church has allowed the same sin that divides and destroys God’s creation to invade its own fellowship and to disrupt it, creating division where there should be unity, discord where God gave healing and concord. In this way, as Professor Skydsgaard has recently pointed out, the Church has come to live in disagreement with its own innermost nature and purpose. Where it is sent to proclaim reconciliation and to live that reconciliation out in a communion of love 1978_-_torranceand faith in the One Lord, it presents to the world a divided Church, and thus resists and misrepresents the very Gospel which it is sent to proclaim and which it is called to live out in the world.

Were it not that God in His great mercy refuses to be baffled and dismayed, but still makes use of His Church, in spite of the fact that it has so tragically sabotaged itself as an instrument for peace and love in His hands, the world would surely tumble to pieces in self-destruction. God who made even the Cross to serve His redeeming purpose of love, by that same Cross is able to make the wrath of man to praise Him. Because His mercy is greater than our unfaithfulness, His grace reigns and abounds over our sinful divisions, so that He continues to call men and women to Himself and give them the shelter of His wings and the confidence of His love — but that is no reason why the Church should continue in sin, the sin of division, that grace may abound.

The Church that partakes of Holy Communion seeks to be renewed in it as a fellowship of reconciliation, but for that very reason it must be prepared to act out that which it receives at the Holy Table, and to live the reconciled life refusing to allow the sinful divisions of the world to have any place in its own life. The Church that nourishes its life by feeding upon the Body and Blood of Christ must live out in its own bodily existence the union and communion in which it participates in Christ. Holy Communion by its own innermost nature and by its whole intention and purpose requires of the Church to work hard to eliminate its division, to resolve to seek reconciliation with all from whom it is estranged.

It is just because unity is God-given that the Church cannot throw it down in the dust or allow it to be trampled upon but must cultivate it as a holy gift and as of the very essence of its salvation in Christ. The Church that allows itself to be divided thereby allows also its relation with Christ to be menaced and called into question. The divisions in the Church thus attack the Church’s participation in reconciliation and threaten to snap the life-line between it and God Himself. How can the Church be the Church and not be the Church? How can it be the Body of Christ and be divided, because Christ is not divided? These are serious questions that the Holy Spirit is putting to the churches in our day, and we have to give Him an account not in words simply but in active reconciliation.

It belongs to the function of the Church, then, to enter into history in the service of reconciliation, to live out its divine life in the midst of the world’s dividedness, and by living as well as witnessing, to bring men into the fellowship of healing and peace with God. In that service, resolutely and deeply performed, the Church will suffer. It is sent to suffer, because it is sent to take up the Cross and follow in the steps of the Suffering Servant, not in order to be a co-redeemer with Christ (how could it do that?), but to identify itself with the world in its guilt and to bear it up in prayer and intercession before God, and in sympathy and compassion, born of the overflowing love of God in Christ, to spend itself in the service of the Gospel until all men are confronted with the Saviour, and all nations and peoples are brought within the active reign of Christ clothed with His Gospel of reconciling grace.

And this Church will have at last to give an account at the judgement seat of Christ of how it has employed its gifts and undertaken its mission. That is why those seven letters to the seven Churches are recorded in the Apocalypse, that the Church may take heed, put its house in order, and be obedient to its Lord who already knocks at the door and waits to lift the latch and celebrate the final repast of communion with those who are His own…. The Last Judgement will force the churches to be what hitherto they have been, fellowships of reconciliation and communions of love, or sources of division and estrangement and bitterness.[1]

It seems to me that Torrance’s argument can helpfully summarized by what John wrote in his first epistle (1:7): “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” This statement can also be reversed: if we do not have fellowship with one another, then we are not walking in the light and he is in the light, and we are still in our sin! That is to say, a failure of the church to walk in unity is symptomatic of a failure to walk in the light of God’s word. A lack of fellowship in the church casts doubt on the existence of that 37cc3b668251bbb881480ae66044fd7cchurch’s fellowship with Christ! If Christ is the reconciliation of God and humanity, then the church as his body can be nothing less than a fellowship of reconciliation. So if it actually causes the opposite of reconciliation, what does that say about its standing as Christ’s body?

In such circumstances, the solution is not the kind of ecumenism that merely sweeps differences under the ecclesial rugs in order to feign a superficial form of unity. Torrance would never commend such an approach. Rather, the ecumenism of which he speaks — what I am calling “ecumenism as mission” — is that which occurs when the existence of division in the church leads it to press ever deeper into the biblical witness in order to articulate more faithfully and precisely the faith delivered once and for all to the saints. It is by engaging in interconfessional dialogue, rather than avoiding it, that churches find new opportunities for serving as witnesses of Jesus Christ. It must be, of course, respectful witness (quick to listen, slow to speak), repentant witness (the humility to not only give but accept correction from others), and reformative witness (intended for the other’s edification rather than proving one’s own confessional superiority). Yet witness it is, and witness it must be.

As I have often said in conversations with Catholics in Italy, the worst thing that we can do is not talk to each other. As long as we all see but in a mirror dimly, none of us can claim to know “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. For that reason, we will always have something to learn, and we will always have something to teach. We may have to contend with the sad reality that the other side is unwilling to engage with us, but that does not exonerate us from the responsibility of living as a fellowship of reconciliation ourselves. And as a fellowship of reconciliation, we are constrained to work for unity in the church which can only result from a common walk in the light of truth. Thus, it is precisely through, rather than against, a properly-defined ecumenism (as in 1 John 1:7) that we — evangelicals churches in particular! — are given unique opportunities to witness to that light. It does not matter that we may achieve the goals we seek, for we are simply called to faithful. It is God alone who makes us fruitful.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, Vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 118-122.

Christological Correction of Church and Ministry: T.F. Torrance on the Contribution of the Reformed Tradition to the Church Universal

It is just here that the Reformed Churches have a witness to give and a contribution to make of great significance to the situation of the world Church today: in picking up again the Reformed integration of the different doctrines of the faith and in thinking them into each other more thoroughly than ever before. Take, for example, the relation of the Church and Ministry to the doctrine of Christ which so concerns the Ecumenical Movement: — by its very principle of procedure the Reformed Church has refused to divorce the ministry from the articles of saving faith, so that for us the ministry is a de fide concern. The Church and Ministry themselves belong to the articles of saving faith. Credo unam sanctam ecclesiam. The doctrine of the Church as the Body of Christ is part of Christology, so that the ordering of the Church as the Body of Christ on earth VG4168-1000x1000cannot be divorced from the dogmatic discipline through which the mind of the Church grows up into mature conformity to the mind of Christ. That was why in Calvin’s view doctrina and disciplina belonged together and overlapped, for disciplina is such learning and discipleship in the Christian faith that it shapes and orders the whole of the Christian life.

The dogmatic and ecclesiastical forms of the Church, the inner and outer, so to speak, may well be distinguished but they cannot be separated. The Church is one Spirit and one Body with Christ the Word made flesh. The New Testament knows nothing of the Church as one Spirit except in its bodily existence in our flesh and blood which Christ assumed and in which we are united to Him through the Spirit. Because of this Biblical emphasis upon the unity of the Church in Body and Spirit, the Reformed Church sought from the very beginning to allow the dogmatic and ecclesiastical forms of the Church’s life and ministry to interpenetrate each other in obedience to the Word of God, and so to restore the doctrinal and ecclesiastical face of the Ancient Catholic Church. In our Reformed Church we will not have a doctrine of the ministry or of succession that cannot be fully integrated with the doctrines of the Person of Christ or atonement; but on the other hand, we will not have formulations of other doctrines which do not contribute to the growth or edification of the Church as the living Body of Christ, to the Church as Ecclesia semper reformanda.

This means, of course, that theology and the life of the Church are inseparable, and theological activity belongs to the strenuous work and daily living of the Church, but it also means that the Reformed Church will only have a liturgy or engage in worship which is invigorated by theology and a theology which ministers to the worship of the Church…. Liturgy and theology go hand in hand. Theology divorced from worship is not divine, but liturgy that is divorced from theology is not true service of God. Such is the integration of doctrine and discipline, of faith and order, of worship and theology so characteristic of the Calvinistic Reformation.

As I see it, that is our greatest contribution to the theology of the world Church — the carrying through into the Ecumenical situation of an integration born out of the centrality of the doctrine of Christ, and therefore the Christological criticism of the doctrines of the Church, Ministry, and Sacraments, in order that as we seek to come together in Christ the doctrine of Christ may be allowed to reshape all our churches so that we may grow up together in the fulness of Christ. Only as in the World Council of Churches we are prepared for the strenuous task of reformation together and the joint criticism of our several traditions can we come together in such a way as to be the one flock of the one Shepherd. We in this [General Council of the World Presbyterian] Alliance must therefore engage in the World Council of Churches as the Ecclesia semper reformanda, in order to let the Word of God speak to us in the context of the joint study of the Holy Scriptures, in order that we may be more and more reformed by it and in this continuous reforming be shaped and armed for the great mission of Christ, the mission of reconciliation, in which we are engaged as servants.

T.F. Torrance, “Our Witness Through Doctrine”, The Presbyterian World 22 (1953): 317-319.

The Catholic Roots of Luther’s Gospel: The Sacrament of Penance and the Surety of Faith

[W]e now turn to the holy sacraments and their blessings to learn to know their benefits and how to use them. Anyone who is granted the time and the grace to confess, to be absolved, and to receive the sacrament and Extreme Unction before his death has great cause indeed to love, praise, and thank God and to die cheerfully, if he relies firmly on and believes in the sacraments, as we said earlier. In the sacraments your God, Christ himself, deals, speaks, and works with you through the priest…. It follows from this that the sacraments, that is, the external words of God as spoken by a priest, are a truly great comfort and at the same time a visible sign of divine intent…. It points to Christ and his image, enabling you to say when faced by the image of death, sin, and hell, “God promised and in his sacraments he gave me a sure sign of his grace that Christ’s life overcame my death in his death, that his obedience blotted out my sin in his suffering, that his love destroyed my hell in his forsakenness. This sign and promise of my salvation will not lie to me or deceive me. It is God who has promised it, and he cannot lie either in words or in deeds.” –Martin Luther [Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 397-398.]

It is often assumed by Catholics and Protestants alike that Martin Luther’s reformational “discovery” of justification by faith alone grounded in the supreme authority of the Word of God represented a radical innovation within the stream of Western Christianity, almost as though these ideas suddenly struck him ex nihilo, like the famous lightning bolt that initially prompted him to become a monk. Thus, Luther is often depicted as either a heresiarch (by some Catholics) or a genius (by some Protestants). Even though it would be difficult to deny Luther’s intellectual gifts and linguistic skill, such caricatures do not withstand the scrutiny of careful historical research that seeks to interpret Luther within the medieval context and intellectual history to which he belonged. On the Protestant side, perhaps no scholar has demonstrated the significant continuity between medieval scholasticism and Reformation/post-Reformation theology (see for instance his four-volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics). This is not to deny, of course, that fundamental differences and conflicts did emerge. However, profitable discourse between Catholics and Protestants today will not be possible by simply repeating the polemically-charged historiography and categorize-and-dismiss approach to which many of us are heir.

Historical theologian Stephen Strehle helps to do this very thing by reconstructing a contextually-informed account of how Luther arrived at the convictions that fueled his reforming efforts. Although we may quibble with Strehle at certain points, we will nevertheless discover that Luther’s commitment to faith alone and the Word of God alone developed out of the sacrament of penance as conceived by a school of thought rooted deeply in the medieval Catholic tradition. I quote Strehle at length here because it requires a bit of time for him to unfold the argument:

[Martin Luther] often spoke of his fifteen (sometimes twenty) years as a monk in the Catholic Church as a time of bondage to the works of self-righteousness and the fear of God. As a monk he did not trust in the righteousness of Christ but in the incessant performance of vigils, prayers, and fasts… Such righteousness, of course, brought nothing but aac80d1f31a7f56ebb05afa7d4255b8ddespair to Luther. His confessions did not bring help or solace, for his sins, he felt, were to great to mention and his contrition never sufficient to satisfy the demands of true righteousness….

Luther, however, did not abandon the practice of penance in order to rediscover his Gospel elsewhere, as is so often supposed among scholars, but found assurance and faith by reinterpreting the purpose of the sacrament… Instead of pointing to the worthiness of one’s own righteousness or contrition, which is indeed the kingdom of the devil and leads to despair, Luther pointed the penitent in another direction. He exhorted the penitent to listen and trust in the words of comfort, uttered by the priest in the sacrament, as the very word of God. He exhorted them to no longer trust in their “contrition of the heart, the confession of the mouth, or satisfaction of works,” but to listen to the mercy that God freely offers them through the priest…. His words must be seen as God’s words; his actions God’s actions; his forgiveness God’s forgiveness. When he pronounces the simple words “I absolve you,” this must be seen as a special pronouncement from God to the individual that his sins have been forgiven.

This is how Luther first became so absolutely assured of his standing before God. God had told him personally. This word was not a promise spoken generally to all men or made contingent upon the fulfillment of conditions, always subject to human frailty and their misconceptions. It was a word spoken from God’s mouth to Luther’s ear. When the priest said, “I absolve you,” the “I” was God and the “you” was Luther…. While this might not satisfy those scholars who prefer a more specific doctrine of justification and thus a more precise moment of his “turn,” there exists, particularly in his early writings, evolving, not static concepts, and certainly no qualitative leap from darkness into light…. He merely considers his Gospel now complete by the addition of this new element. As Luther says, he “lacked nothing before, except the distinction between the law and the Gospel.” And so, his tower experience is best understood as adding another element to his overall maturation rather than a radical departure from the other aspects of his Gospel already evolved.

There are other testimonies that merit as much attention… One such testimony … refers to a “certain older brother,” who is never mentioned by name but is often credited by Luther and his followers for directing him toward faith and assurance. While Luther was in the midst of his trials at Erfurt in 1507, this brother, it is said, helped to console Luther’s conscience by pointing him to the words of the great symbol, “I believe in the remission of sins.” These words were interpreted by him, not as a general statement of faith or a simple assent to what God can do through his church but were interpreted as a direct command from God to believe that one’s own sins had been forgiven. For confession this meant that the words of absolution spoken by the Priest are to believed as a personal word from God concerning the forgiveness of one’s sins….

Another set of testimonies concerns John Staupitz, Luther’s beloved mentor and vice-general of the Reformed Augustinian Order, who brought Luther to Wittenberg in 1508 when he was only twenty-six years old. Luther credits Staupitz with rescuing him from hell, fixing his eyes upon Christ, bringing the light of the Gospel into the darkness of his heart, and being his father in Christ and the teaching in which he now stands…. According to Luther, the word “penance,” which had so distressed his conscience, became a word of consolation through Staupitz. In the writings of Staupitz we find traces, in fact, of the same exhortations that we saw earlier in Luther. In confession, we are told to trust (Vertrawen) in the mercy of God and believe the grace that is being offered to us in the words of absolution. We are told to disregard our contrition and good works, for such would lead to despair, and trust in the mercy of God offered to us through the priest for our own personal consolation. While these admonitions are not directly cited and attributed to Staupitz in Luther’s own writings, they still reflect the very essence of what Luther came to believe and must have facilitated his discovery of the Gospel….

More important than whatever influence … any other person might have exerted upon Luther in his maturation is the prominence of a larger tradition out of which Luther and these persons probably emerged. There is a wide-spread, although little known, tradition before and after the time of Luther which contended like Luther 220px-JohnDunsScotus_-_fullthat assurance could be obtained in the sacrament of penance through faith. The founder of this tradition was Duns Scotus. Duns had taught that a mere “disposition” or “unformed act,” i.e., not formed by grace, is all that is necessary for the penitent to receive absolution. One is simply beholden “not to place an obstacle” (se non ponere obicem) in the way of its reception. No merit, not even “congruous merit,” and no attrition, not even a “good inward motion,” are considered absolutely necessary. Such a minimal requirement was designed to exalt the mercies of God, who rewards his people freely and graciously (ex pacto), above the more exacting demands of Thomistic theology and thus produce more certainty in those who seek his grace. The Scotists, we know, during the time of Gabriel Biel (ca. 1410-1495) continued this tradition of their beloved Doctor and contended even more boldly that one is able to know through the sacrament of penance whether he is currently in a state of grace. All that is necessary is not to place an obstacle in the way of its reception….

This requirement again was meant to provide a bare minimum on the part of the penitent that anybody can fulfill and know that he fulfills, in contrast to the more exacting demands of heart-felt contrition in Thomism. Eventually, the requirement of “not placing an obstacle” will become merged with the more positive condition of faith, as we have already seen in the “older brother” and Staupitz and which we will now see again in the Council of Trent.

While it is well attested, it is not generally known that the majority of the Council of Trent, by a majority of twenty-one to fourteen, actually favored the Scotist position of certitude during much of its proceedings before a new commission was appointed, changing the balance of power. The Scotists, led by Ambrosius Catharinus and Johannes Delphinus, contended that “through faith” the one who does not place an obstacle is able to receive grace and know assuredly that he stands within that grace. According to Catharinus a perfect conversion is unnecessary for the “certitude of faith.” According to Delphinus doubt only arises when one looks to his own merit or contrition and neglects the grace offered to him ex opere operato in the sacrament. He who believes has no doubts, for the testimony of the Spirit drives them away. The Scotists, of course, looked back to their beloved Subtle Doctor, Duns Scotus, for much-needed authority and inspiration in this regard. They argued that the certitude of grace through the sacrament of penance was the Subtle Doctor’s most fundamental position, and the council could not in all good conscience condemn such an illustrious doctor of the church.

The Scotists did, however, find it necessary to distinguish their position from that of the heretics, Luther and his followers, due to the obvious similarities between the camps. The first difference was that they, unlike Luther, did not demand certitude of those who are genuinely remitted of their sins but only felt that such certitude is possible for those who do not place an obstacle in the way and exercise faith. Both the Thomists and Scotists were at least unanimous in this: Luther’s contention that those who are truly justified know of their state most assuredly must be outright condemned. The second difference which they put forth was that the faith which they so strongly inculcated is never “alone” but involves love and other works of sanctification. This time, however, the differences were not so apparent, since Luther himself never contended that true faith in actuality could be separated from the works thereof and the Scotists themselves tended to isolate faith when it came to the reception of grace and certitude, in order to dissuade the penitent from trusting in the works of contrition. This time the differences, of course, were much more subtle, and the Scotists had considerable difficulty in distinguishing themselves from the position of the heretics….

[T]he evidence is clear that Luther’s primary impulse in his reformational turn was not so much inspired by Paul, nor did it require a rejection of his Catholic roots, but involved an acceptance and furtherance of what was already prevalent in the Scotistic doctrine of penance.[1]

To briefly summarize Strehle’s argument, we come to understand Luther’s “discovery” or “tower experience” less in terms of a lightning bolt from heaven and more as a development and refinement of his own Catholic and Scotist influences. Luther’s belief in “justification by faith alone” was rooted in the sacrament of penance. The purpose of the sacrament, at least in the Scotist understanding, was not to direct the penitent to his or her own repentance or good works as the basis of assurance of forgiveness and right standing with God; rather, such assurance was granted simply on the basis of the unobstructed word of absolution pronounced by the priest. Since this word of absolution Johannes-Bugenhagen-Keyswas not pronounced according to the merits of the penitent, it could only be received by faith. The words “I absolve you” placed the penitent (“you”) in an exclusively receptive position; all that one could do was simply give ear to these words, and then accept and believe that they were true. Hence, justification by faith alone.

That this was in turn grounded in an understanding of the Word of God as possessing the supreme authority in the church is evident from the fact that the subject of the sentence “I absolve you” had to ultimately be God himself in order to have any validity. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). Luther rightly understood that the sacrament of penance could grant the forgiveness that it promised only if the word of absolution was pronounced by the priest on the basis of the supreme authority of God himself. Was this not the reason why such a word could be pronounced only by a priest who had been properly ordained? Indeed, were the priest simply speaking, as any other non-ordained individual, of his own accord and on his own authority, what assurance could he provide? Divine forgiveness could only be validly proffered by the priest if his word was uttered in the full power and authority of the Word of God. Thus, Luther realized that what ultimately mattered was not the authority of the priestly word considered in and of itself, but the supremely authoritative Word of God which alone (sola!) rendered the sacrament effectual. From here, it was a small step to a recognition of the supreme authority of the Word of God attested in inspired Scripture.

Again, I do not want to imply that Luther’s teachings did not represent a significant departure from certain aspects of medieval Catholic theology (though perhaps not as radical as we might think!), yet understanding the elements of continuity that did exist should help us to realize that 1) contrary to anti-Protestant polemics, Luther’s reformational discovery can be viewed as a coherent development along the trajectory of an established school of thought accepted in the medieval Catholic tradition (represented, in fact, at the Council of Trent!), and that 2) contrary to anti-Catholic polemics, medieval Catholicism was not the black abyss that some Protestants make it out to be.

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[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 8-10, 18-20, 22-26. Special thanks to Bobby Grow for directing me to Strehle’s work.

The Witness of Martin Luther to the Catholic Church of Today

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As an introduction to this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Catholic Church, under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), prepared and published the following statement [full text here]:

In 1517 Martin Luther raised concerns about what he saw as abuses in the Church of his time by making public his 95 theses. 2017 is the 500th anniversary of this key event in the reformation movements that marked the life of the Western Church over several centuries. This event has been a controversial theme in the history of inter-church relations in Germany, not least over the last few years. The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) has been building up to this anniversary since 2008, by focusing each year on one particular aspect of the Reformation, for example: the Reformation and Politics, or the Reformation and Education. The EKD also invited its ecumenical partners at various levels to help commemorate the events of 1517.

After extensive, and sometimes difficult, discussions, the churches in Germany agreed that the way to commemorate ecumenically this Reformation event should be with a Christusfest – a Celebration of Christ. If the emphasis were to be placed on Jesus Christ and his work of reconciliation as the center of Christian faith, then all the ecumenical partners of the EKD (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite and others) could participate in the anniversary festivities.

Given the fact that the history of the Reformation was marked by painful division, this is a very remarkable achievement. The Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity has worked hard to produce a shared understanding of the commemoration. Its important report, From Conflict to Communion, recognizes that both traditions approach this anniversary in an ecumenical age, with the achievements of fifty years of dialogue behind them, and with new understandings of their own history and theology. Separating that which is polemical from the theological insights of the Reformation, Catholics are now able to hear Luther’s challenge for the Church of today, recognising him as a “witness to the gospel” (From Conflict to Communion 29). And so after centuries of mutual condemnations and vilification, in 2017 Lutheran and Catholic Christians will for the first time commemorate together the beginning of the Reformation.

The particular phrase that caught my attention is the declaration, citing From Conflict to Communion (another document produced by the PCPCU with the Lutheran World Federation), that “Catholics are now able to hear Luther’s challenge for the Church of today, recognising him as a ‘witness to the gospel'”. This statement is both stunning and exciting. It is true, of course, that those who have kept a close eye on the trajectory of the Catholic Church since Vatican II may not be surprised, as is even evident in the aforementioned From Conflict to Communion [full text here]:

28. In light of the renewal of Catholic theology evident in the Second Vatican Council, Catholics today can appreciate Martin Luther’s reforming concerns and regard them with more openness than seemed possible earlier.

29. Implicit rapprochement with Luther’s concerns has led to a new evaluation of his catholicity, which took place in the context of recognizing that his intention was to reform, not to divide, the church. This is evident in the statements of Johannes Cardinal Willebrands and Pope John Paul II.(7) The rediscovery of these two central characteristics of his person and theology led to a new ecumenical understanding of Luther as a “witness to the gospel.”

Although post-Vatican II Catholicism seems to have been primed for a recognition of Luther as a witness to the gospel, this is without doubt a stunning development when considered from the perspective of the 450 years or so of preceding history. Who could have imagined, after the harsh polemic and vitriol of the 16th century, that the Church which excommunicated and anathematized Luther would laud him as a witness to the gospel nearly a half-millennium later? What can account for this change? It is obviously not because Luther finally recanted! No, it can only mean that something has indeed changed in the Catholic Church itself, a change that, however small, is finally permitting the voice of Luther’s witness to the gospel to be heard on the other side of the Tiber.

To this I can only exclaim “Praise God!” It is undeniable that problems and differences, some of which are staggering in significance and scope, still remain between Catholics and Protestants. Yet as Jesus indicated in his parables, the gospel of the kingdom that will one day fill the whole earth starts, like a seed, with such small beginnings. We should not, as the prophet Zechariah admonished Israel, “despise the day of small things” (4:10), for it is in the small things that God demonstrates the greatness of his power.

As exciting as it is to read an official Catholic document that acknowledges Martin Luther to be a witness of the gospel to whom Catholics today can listen, I believe that it is premature to declare the Reformation to be over on its 500th anniversary. From the perspective of historic Protestantism, much reforming work still needs to be done in order to fully align the Western Church under the banner of Luther’s call to sola gratiasola fide, and solus Christus.

I do not want to sound naive or idealistic, nor do I want to exaggerate what has occurred, but I do want to give full credence to the power of the gospel on which Luther staked his entire life’s work. Who is to say that this day of small things — the Catholic Church’s recognition that Luther is a true “witness to the gospel” — does not mark the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the one Church of Jesus Christ? I, for one, am certainly praying that it is. Only time will tell.

The challenge for many Catholics, however, will be to heed the example and teaching of the Church — whose authority they claim to uphold — by laying down their rhetorical weapons and starting to actually listen to Luther rather than brandishing him as a heretic and schismatic without further adieu. The question that remains in my mind is this: will such Catholics persist in following the example of Charles V at the Diet of Worms in regarding Luther as “a notorious heretic”, or will they be willing to listen to him, indeed as their own Church encourages them to do, as “a witness to the gospel”? My hope and prayer is that they (along with Protestants as well!) will lend an attentive ear to words which preface their own Church’s From Conflict to Communion:

In 2017, Catholic and Lutheran Christians will most fittingly look back on events that occurred 500 years earlier by putting the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center. The gospel should be celebrated and communicated to the people of our time so that the world may believe that God gives Godself to human beings and calls us into communion with Godself and God’s church. Herein lies the basis for our joy in our common faith.

To this joy also belongs a discerning, self-critical look at ourselves, not only in our history, but also today. We Christians have certainly not always been faithful to the gospel; all too often we have conformed ourselves to the thought and behavioral patterns of the surrounding world. Repeatedly, we have stood in the way of the good news of the mercy of God.

Both as individuals and as a community of believers, we all constantly require repentance and reform—encouraged and led by the Holy Spirit. “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Thus reads the opening statement of Luther’s 95 Theses from 1517, which triggered the Reformation movement.

Although this thesis is anything but self-evident today, we Lutheran and Catholic Christians want to take it seriously by directing our critical glance first at ourselves and not at each other. We take as our guiding rule the doctrine of justification, which expresses the message of the gospel and therefore “constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ” (Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification).

Post Tenebras Lux: After 500 Years, Can Reformation Finally Come to the Heart of Roman Catholicism?

No, your eyes do not deceive you. Yes, that is a picture of Martin Luther posted on the right in front of a Catholic Church in Italy in remembrance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

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Don’t believe me? Here is a closer look.

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As if one picture of Luther were not enough, a nearby Church thought it necessary to post five!

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Not only is this posting of Luther’s picture in front of the Catholic Church in Italy a reason to celebrate, but it also holds a special significance for me in that my name is printed on it as well. Why? Because the Catholic Church in the community where I live has asked me to participate in a conference that will be open to the public in which I will have the opportunity to discuss the significance of the Reformation past, present, and future with Catholic priest and eminent professor of theology and history Don Ermis Segatti. I have participated in something like this in the past, and I am very much looking forward to another occasion in which I will be able to speak on the continuing relevance of the Reformation in a public forum.

The reason why this is exciting for me is because, as it is well known, the Reformation had little to no lasting impact in Italy, largely due to its proximity to the heart of Catholicism in Rome. Five hundred years ago, the Catholic Church succeeded in stamping out the majority of the Protestant incursions into the Italian peninsula. Since that time, the Church in Italy, to say nothing of the wider culture, has borne the indelible imprint of the countermeasures adopted against the Protestant faith and immortalized in the decrees of the Council of Trent.

Times are changing, however, as evidenced by the fact that a local Catholic Church here in Italy is commemorating the start of the Reformation, posting Luther’s next to its main entrance. Even the pope has recently expressed a measured amount of respect for Luther in his good intentions to bring necessary reform to the Church. Among the various explanations for why this may be occurring, it might be helpful to know that the Catholic Church in Italy has suffered, and continues to suffer, a severe hemorrhaging of its faithful. The number of Italians still claiming to be Catholic has dropped dramatically in the last few years and has reached an unprecedent low. In his book Can We Save the Catholic Church?, Catholic priest and theologian Hans Küng details this steady exodus of Italians away from their inherited faith when he writes:

It has become increasingly clear that the number of people who consider the Church necessary – or even useful – has continually decreased since the peak of public approval at the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), and under Benedict XVI it dropped to an all-time low. The results of significant surveys conducted in a number of Western countries show that this decline is not a development restricted to the ‘recalcitrant’ German-speaking countries.

In Italy, the land of the pope, less than half of the population still consider themselves to be Catholic, 20 per cent less than in 2004 (IARD RPS). This is despite the fact that more than 80 per cent consider religion to be important, a drop of only 8 per cent compared to six years previously. But many people want to have nothing more to do with the Church as an institution. Only 46 per cent still have confidence in the pope; six years ago the number stood at 60 per cent.[1]

Since Küng wrote these words back in 2013, nothing seems to have stemmed the tide of Italians leaving the Catholic Church. A new article published last year documents that:

…a record number of Italian Catholics are also thought to have defected from the Church in 2015, according to figures published in January by the Italian Union of Atheists, Agnostics and Rationalists (URR), an organization that helps Catholics abjure their religion by providing them with forms that can be downloaded online and sent to their local parish. Some 47,726 forms were downloaded in 2015, beating the previous high of 45,797 set in 2012, while the not-so-popular Pope Benedict was still at the helm of the Catholic Church. [Full article here]

Not only are the Italian faithful disillusioned over the condition of their Church, but trouble is also brewing in the highest echelons of the Roman hierarchy. On March 2, 2017, CSN News reported the following:

According to a report in The London Times and best selling Catholic author and journalist Antonio Socci, about 12 cardinals who have supported Pope Francis since his election in March 2013 now fear that his controversial reforms may cause a schism in the Church, and so they hope to pressure the Pope to resign. 

“A large part of the cardinals who voted for him is very worried and the curia … that organized his election and has accompanied him thus far, without ever disassociating itself from him, is cultivating the idea of a moral suasion to convince him to retire,” reported Socci in the Italian newspaper Libero, as quoted in The London Times of March 2. 

The cardinals who want Pope Francis to resign are among the liberal prelates who backed Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis) four years ago, said Socci, and they would like to replace him with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state. 

“Four years after Benedict XVI’s renunciation and Bergoglio’s arrival on the scene, the situation of the Catholic church has become explosive, perhaps really on the edge of a schism, which could be even more disastrous than Luther’s…” said Socci. [Full article here]

Socci is manifestly not an admirer of Martin Luther, whom he holds to be responsable for a “disastrous” schism. Nevertheless, he fears that the Catholic Church is on the verge of a schism potentially more disastrous than anything Luther provoked, and this time the instigator is none other than the pope himself.

I do not write this as one who sits in judgment over the Catholic Church. I strongly disagree with Socci’s view of Luther and of the Reformation in general, but that is really beside the point that I want to make, which is this: the Church in Italy needs gospel renewal! It is no mere Protestant polemic to acknowledge the fact that the Catholic Church, at least the part of it that lies closest to its center, is sick and bleeding out. Everyone in Italy knows this. According to Hans Küng, there is no denying “debilitating and potentially terminal illness from which the Church is presently suffering” [2]. Although I am sure that many Catholic apologists elsewhere will object, it is a fact that most Italian Catholics who live closest to Rome, like Antonio Socci, are gravely concerned over the languishing health of their Church and are fearing the worst. It is no unkindness to call something what it is.

It is no human strategy or solution that can bring healing to the fatal wound of Italian Christianity, but only the gospel of Jesus Christ which alone is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). To say that the increasing numbers of Italians turning their backs on their Church, and for that reason on Christ as well, need the gospel is simply to say that they need others who will share the gospel with them. As Paul argued in Romans 10, how will they hear unless they are told, and how will they be told unless others are sent to them?

All this to say, Italy needs missionaries. Not necessarily missionaries of the traditional “jungles-of-Africa” variety, but reformissionaries who are committed to bringing gospel renewal and revival to a land increasingly devoid of Christianity. Even Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged this when he wrote:

 …we also sadly know of some areas that have almost completely abandoned the Christian religion, where the light of the faith is entrusted to the witness of small communities: these lands, which need a renewed first proclamation of the Gospel, seem particularly resistant to many aspects of the Christian message. This variety of situations demands careful discernment; to speak of a “new evangelization” does not in fact mean that a single formula should be developed that would hold the same for all circumstances. And yet it is not difficult to see that what all the Churches living in traditionally Christian territories need is a renewed missionary impulse, an expression of a new, generous openness to the gift of grace. [Full text here]

Indeed, the contemporary situation and need of Italy is not unlike that which John Calvin described in the 16th century:

…the question is not whether the Church suffers from many and grievous diseases, for this is admitted even by all moderate judges; but whether the diseases are of a kind whose cure admits of no longer delay, so that it is neither useful nor proper to wait upon too slow remedies…. We maintain to start with that, when God raised up Luther and others, who held forth a torch to light us into the way of salvation, and on whose ministry our churches are founded and built, those heads of doctrine in which the truth of our religion, those in which the pure and legitimate worship of God, and those in which the salvation of men are comprehended, were in a great measure obsolete.[4]

This is why I am in Italy. I long to hold forth the torch taken up by Luther five hundred years ago and play some small part in sparking true gospel reformation across the land that has always been the center of Roman Catholicism. For the last five hundred years, the light of the gospel has not been permitted to shine with its refulgent glory throughout the peninsula. Up until the 20th century access to the Bible was extremely limited in Italy, and not until Vatican II was full blessing given to the faithful to read it for themselves. For this reason, the Bible has been dubbed “‘the absent book'” in the history and culture of modern Italy”,[3] and the significance of this cannot be overstated. Centuries of suppression have ingrained within the Italian psyche a reticence, if not downright opposition, to reading the Bible. We can only pray that God would mightily work to change this tragic reality. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. If they will not hear, how will they have faith?

So I would ask that you would pray for me in my work here in Italy, and specifically as I prepare for this upcoming conference on the Reformation. Might God be pleased to use the current crisis in the Catholic Church to open wide its door that for five hundred years has remained bolted shut against the great truths rediscovered during the Reformation? I don’t know, that is in his hands. For my part, I just hope to maybe push it open a crack! If nothing else, I would at least celebrate the small victory that is the local Catholic Church’s decision to post pictures of Martin Luther just outside its doors and host a public event commemorating his work. Perhaps now is the time to start proclaiming again the great Reformation motto: Post Tenebras Lux! After Darkness Light!

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[1] Hans Küng, Can We Save the Catholic Church? (London: William Collins, 2013), p.45

[2] Ibid., p.1.

[3] http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/bibbie-d-italia-la-traduzione-dei-testi-biblici-in-italiano-tra-otto-e-novecento_(Cristiani-d’Italia)/

[4] John Calvin, Theological Treatises (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1954), pp.185-186.

True Ecumenism: Pope Francis and the Centrality of Jesus Christ

As of late I have written a number of articles that address the now 500 year old division between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches. I have been largely critical of what I see in the Catholic Church as standing in the way of healing that division, not least of which is the Roman papacy as it has come to be defined and exercised. Since, however, my aim is not to be critical as an end in itself (for critique should only clear the ground for construction), I want to give credit where credit is due and highlight positive developments where and when they occur. For this reason, I think that Pope Francis should be commended for his recent definition of “true ecumenism”.

First a word of introduction. Although in some evangelical circles the term “ecumenical” carries negative connotations, I unreservedly confess to being an ecumenical at heart, for I would desire nothing less than to witness a clear and visible manifestation of unity between the churches now divided. I am concerned, however, that such unity be pursued in the proper way, in the way in which the New Testament itself directs us. I do not envision that the Catholic-Protestant schism will be overcome through a mere “return to Rome” or a glossing over of the differences that exist. Why not? Because for all of the various social, cultural, and political factors that contributed to the birth of the Reformation, the Reformers were driven fundamentally by theological motivations. It is easy to forget that Martin Luther did not initially intend to break communion with the bishop of Rome, indicating that his basic complaint was not with the Church as an institution so much as with the errors that he discerned in its teaching. Since the Reformation arose primarily as a movement aimed at correcting the faith of the Catholic popefrancis_speaks_during_an_ecumenical_gathering_at_malmo_arena_in_lund_sweden_oct_31_2016_credit_losservatore_romano_cnaChurch, then it is unlikely that a mere return of the Reformation’s offspring to the institution of the Catholic Church will suffice for true unity.

All of this leads me to the substance of this post. This month (18-25 January) witnessed the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity whose theme, in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, was “Reconciliation – The Love of Christ Compels Us”. During the celebration, Pope Francis had this to say in an address the Finnish Lutheran Ecumenical Delegation (full text here):

True ecumenism is based on a shared conversion to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Redeemer.  If we draw close to him, we draw close also to one another.  During these days let us pray more fervently to the Holy Spirit so that we may experience this conversion which makes reconciliation possible.

On this path, we Catholics and Lutherans, from several countries, together with various communities sharing our ecumenical journey, reached a significant step when, on 31 October last, we gathered together in Lund, Sweden, to commemorate through common prayer the beginning of the Reformation.  This joint commemoration of the Reformation was important on both the human and theological-spiritual levels.  After fifty years of official ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans, we have succeeded in clearly articulating points of view which today we agree on.  For this we are grateful.  At the same time we keep alive in our hearts sincere contrition for our faults.  In this spirit, we recalled in Lund that the intention of Martin Luther five hundred years ago was to renew the Church, not divide her.  The gathering there gave us the courage and strength, in our Lord Jesus Christ, to look ahead to the ecumenical journey that we are called to walk together.

Now the pope’s address contains some elements with which I could take issue, but that is not the purpose of this post. Rather, I would like to commend the pope for clearly articulating what I believe to be the heart and soul of “true ecumenism”. Though I still stand by the reservations I have voiced in the past about the pope’s ecumenical intentions, I cannot but wholeheartedly affirm his summary of the true path to unity between the churches: it is ultimately by drawing close to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, that we draw near (or are drawn near!) to one another. I am reminded here of the apostle John’s admonishment in his first epistle: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). This verse is highly instructive: we have fellowship with each other – visibly manifesting the fullness of our catholicity – to the extent that we walk in the light as Christ is in, and indeed himself is, the light. If we do not have fellowship with one another, then the only conclusion is that we are not walking in the light of Christ! In some form or another, we do not have full fellowship with each because we do not have full fellowship with Christ. As Karl Barth powerfully put it:

The quest for the unity of the Church must in fact be identical with the quest for Jesus Christ as the concrete Head and Lord of the Church. The blessing of unity cannot be separated from Him who blesses, for in Him it has its source and reality, through His Word and Spirit it is revealed to us, and only in faith in Him can it become a reality among us. I repeat: Jesus Christ as the one Mediator between God and man is the oneness of the Church, is that unity within which there may be a multiplicity of communities, of gifts, of persons with the one Church, while through it a multiplicity of churches are excluded. When we confess and assert that it belongs to the Church’s commission to be one Church, we must not have in mind the idea of unity, whatever its goodness and moral beauty may be – we must have Him in our mind; for in Him and in Him only…can those other multiplicities of the Church whether recent or of long standing, which claim an independence of their own, lose their life. “Homesickness for the una sancta” is genuine and legitimate only insofar as it is a disquietude at the fact that we have lost and forgotten Christ, and with Him have lost the unity of the Church.[1]

If the root problem of our disunity is a disrupted fellowship with Christ, then the only solution, as the pope rightly observed, is a “shared conversion to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Redeemer”. This means, as the pope further acknowledged, that we must “keep alive in our hearts sincere contrition for our faults”. I appreciate that the pope included himself, and by extension the Catholic Church as a whole, in this. He did not say to the Lutheran delegation: “you keep alive in your hearts sincere contrition for your faults”, as though the blame is only to be laid at the feet of Luther. Indeed, Pope Francis reaffirmed the fact that Luther never wanted to divide the church, but quite the contrary: he believed that a renewal of the church could only strengthen its unity. Rather, the pope stressed that when it comes to church disunity, all sides are culpable and thus must adopt a fundamentally repentant attitude.

It is not coincidental that in the verse subsequent to the one quoted above John wrote: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”. (1 John 1:8). In other words, when we find that we have broken fellowship with each other, than it will not do for some of us claim that we have no sin in the matter! None of us, neither Catholic nor Protestant (to say nothing of the Orthodox!), can be wholly exonerated. We have all contributed to this division in one way or another. Self-posturing or self-justification will never bring about the fellowship of which John is speaking. That can only happen through confession and repentance: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Thus, if we as Catholics and Protestants truly want to walk the pathway to greater unity, that pathway will first and foremost be directed toward Christ himself. It is only as we draw near to Christ (rather than to a particular tradition or person or institution) that we will find ourselves drawn nearer to each other as well.

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[1] Karl Barth, The Church and the Churches. (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2005), pp.13-15.

Not of This World: Why the Way of the Cross Opposes the Will to Power

This week Fr. Paul Samasumo, writing on behalf of Radio Vaticana, reported on an interesting development regarding the Catholic Church’s international relations:

Pope Francis Monday revealed that the number of ambassadors accredited to the Holy See has grown. In his annual address to members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, it also emerged that in the course of last year, the number of African countries that signed or ratified bilateral Agreements with the Holy See had increased. The establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a month ago, brings to 182 countries and entities that have diplomatic relations with the Holy See in the world. In his annual address to the diplomats, Pope Francis named the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Benin as African countries that signed or ratified agreements aimed at recognising the Catholic Church’s juridical status, last year (full text here).

Samasumo’s article brings to light, albeit somewhat incidentally, a sometimes neglected facet of Roman Catholicism, namely, its existence not merely as an ecclesial body but also as a political state. Indeed, the fact that official diplomatic relations exist between the Vatican and “182 countries and entities” that recognize it as a sovereign state capable of playing a significant role in international affairs reveals much about the way in which the Catholic 150928_pol_franciscongresscon-jpg-crop-promo-xlarge2Church construes itself and its mission in the world. Italian theologian Leonardo De Chirico explains:

The Roman Catholic Church is the only church that also has a sovereign state with its own political, financial, juridical and diplomatic structure. It is the only ecclesial body that deals with other states as a state. When the Church signs agreements with another state in the form of a concordat, for instance, it does so according to the rules of international law, as one sovereign country with another. The Pope is head of the church and head of state. When he visits a nation he is welcomed as if he were a king, not simply as an archbishop or some other ecclesiastical figure. Though small and symbolic, the Church also has an army, like any other state. Its double identity (ecclesial and political) is the fruit of its long and complex history, and is also an indication of its composite institutional nature: both church and state in one. Theology and politics are so intertwined in the system of the Roman Catholic Church and its activities that it is impossible to separate them.[1]

For Protestants like myself, this conflation of church and state, of the kingdom of God with the kingdom of man, is highly problematic. It also represents, beyond whatever theological bones we Protestants may have to pick, one of the clearest signs that the Catholic Church has lost its way as a church, that is, as the communion of saints (disciples) called to follow their Lord by denying themselves, renouncing all that they have, and taking up their cross (Luke 14:25-33). As Jesus demonstrated through his own example, the way of the cross is fundamentally opposed to the will to power, even as we see clearly illustrated in his encounter with the imperial authority of Rome embodied in the person of Pontius Pilate. As John (18:36) recounts the scene:

Jesus answered [Pilate], “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

The reason why Jesus refused (and prohibited his disciples) to inaugurate his kingdom by the same means as those employed by Pilate on behalf of the Roman empire was because his kingdom was not of the Roman empire, nor of any other form of earthly power and authority. His kingdom instead executes judgment on all the ways and works of the kings of the earth (Psalm 2). Like the vision, interpreted by Daniel (2:44-45), by which God confronted King Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom of God is like a stone, not cut with human hands, that smashes all earthly kingdoms to dust. And with Jesus, the actual way in which the kingdom of God came with this earth-shattering power was not by military might, political pressure, or diplomatic maneuvering, but rather through the foolishness, weakness, and suffering of the cross. As Roman Catholic theologian Paul Molnar writes (in reference to T.F. Torrance):

The church cannot use temporal power to achieve [its] ends because that would undermine the reality of the church’s existence as the Body of Christ who suffered and died for the church. Its own historical form can only be one of taking up its cross and following Christ and of allowing the living Lord to build his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven through the Holy Spirit. What Torrance opposes, then, is the “use of political theology as a basic hermeneutic to interpret the Gospel and the mission of the Church in the world today” because in doing this they “become trapped in an ecclesiastical will to power” [Torrance, Theology in Reconciliation, 78]. He opposes using temporal power to attain spiritual ends because this is not the way the church as the Body of Christ exists as the Kingdom of God on earth between the time of Jesus’ resurrection, ascension and second coming. The determination to use temporal power to attain unity or universality will always mean that the positive evangelical and spiritual forces at work in the church will be suppressed.[2]

Any church, therefore, that claims the name of Christ and yet adopts the very means of power and influence that Christ himself eschewed has, in reality, abandoned the way of Christ and followed in the footsteps of Pilate. This is not to say that the church should not be in any way involved in matters concerning worldly governments but that it should not assume the form of those governments or imitate their way of achieving their goals. Sadly, this is precisely what we see in the Roman Catholic Church. Is it any coincidence that the only church to have taken up the political will to power, in diametric opposition to the way of the cross, is centered in Rome?

It is for this reason that I, like Leonardo De Chirico (and the vast majority of Italian evangelicals), insist…

that it is incompatible with the teaching of Scripture to have a church whose heart is a political state that is a legacy of an “imperial” church from which it has inherited titles and prerogatives. Christian churches must refrain from imitating “the princes of this world” and follow the example of Jesus who came to serve and not to be served (Mark 10:42-45)...While it is true that evangelicals should point to the fact that we are united with those who trust in Christ alone for their salvation, they should still find the Catholic church as an institution to be in need of radical reformation according to the Word of God. There is no “reconciled diversity” with sin and rebellion and with “arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). [source]

What is therefore to be demanded of the Catholic Church? Simply this: that it deny itself, renounce its will to temporal power, and take up the cross. Only by forsaking its use of worldly means to accomplish spiritual ends will the Catholic Church begin to truly reflect the crucified Lord that it claims to represent. As Jesus responded to his disciples’ desire to receive from him the authority of an earthly kingdom:

You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. [Mark 10:42-45]

If only the Church of Rome had yielded to the summons of Martin Luther to reform itself according to the New Testament’s “theology of the cross” in opposition to the “theology young-lutherof glory” that had come to prominence in its thinking and practice! In his famous “Heidelberg Disputation”, Luther wrote:

Because humans do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on. Therefore they become increasingly blinded and hardened by such love, for desire cannot be satisfied by the acquisition of those things which it desires….The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it. In other words, he who wishes to become wise does not seek wisdom by progressing toward it but becomes a fool by retrogressing into seeking folly. Likewise he who wishes to have much power, honor, pleasure, satisfaction in all things must flee rather than seek power, honor, pleasure, and satisfaction in all things. This is the wisdom which is folly to the world.[3]

Indeed, the wisdom of the cross is folly to the world. The wisdom of the world cannot be reconciled with or incorporated into the wisdom of the cross. They are diametrically opposed. Thus, as Luther urged, the church, when tempted by the desire to emulate the kingdoms of man to fulfill its mission in the kingdom of God, must not seek to satisfy it but extinguish it. Although the Catholic Church of Luther’s day turned a deaf ear to his admonitions and has continued to do so up to the present day, perhaps by the mercy of God it is not too late for it to finally repudiate the “wisdom…of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away” (1 Cor. 2:6) and repentantly take up its cross to humbly serve the Suffering Servant whose kingdom is not of this world.

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[1] Leonardo De Chirico, A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Papacy: Its Origin and Role in the 21st Century. (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 2015), pp.7-8.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, T.F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity. (Surrey/Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2009) p.279.

[3] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds., (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012) p.23.

The Only Fountain of Salvation: Sola Scriptura and the Faith of the Early Church

One of the most common objections that I hear from Roman Catholics against the five solas of the Reformation, especially to sola Scriptura, is that these were complete novelties invented by the Protestant Reformers in blatant contradiction to the first centuries of church history. None of the church fathers, it is argued, had any conception of sola Scriptura (much less of any of the other solas), and thus the Reformation’s innovations should be denounced and abandoned.

I would beg to differ. Contrary to those who routinely resort to such platitudes (rather than actually engaging with whatever opposing argument is being offered), I am Protestant, as I have often stated, precisely in order to be more truly catholic in keeping with the apostolic faith of the early church. As an avid student of church history, I become ever more convinced that Sola Scriptura, far from being a Protestant invention, was a faithful re-articulation of the belief and practice of the early orthodox church in terms meant to oppose the swollen sense of the authority of church tradition that developed later on and came to dominate the medieval church. I realize that this will seem to some like an outlandish claim, and so it is one that I fully intend to defend here, but with the proviso that since this is a blog post (rather than a monograph), I will not be able to provide an exhaustive analysis of the issue. That said, I would like to begin by citing a lengthy section from Athanasius’ famous Festal Letter XXXIX, written in 367, in which the Alessandrian “father of orthodoxy” clearly delineates his view of Holy Scripture:

But since we have made mention of heretics as dead, but of ourselves as possessing the Divine Scriptures for salvation; and since I fear lest, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, some few of the simple should be beguiled from their simplicity and purity, by the subtilty of certain men, and should henceforth read 220px-athanasius_iother books—those called apocryphal—led astray by the similarity of their names with the true books; I beseech you to bear patiently, if I also write, by way of remembrance, of matters with which you are acquainted, influenced by the need and advantage of the Church.

In proceeding to make mention of these things, I shall adopt, to commend my undertaking, the pattern of Luke the Evangelist, saying on my own account: ‘Forasmuch as some have taken in hand,’ to reduce into order for themselves the books termed apocryphal, and to mix them up with the divinely inspired Scripture, concerning which we have been fully persuaded, as they who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word, delivered to the fathers; it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine; to the end that any one who has fallen into error may condemn those who have led him astray; and that he who has continued steadfast in purity may again rejoice, having these things brought to his remembrance.

There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. The first is Genesis, then Exodus, next Leviticus, after that Numbers, and then Deuteronomy. Following these there is Joshua, the son of Nun, then Judges, then Ruth. And again, after these four books of Kings, the first and second being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth as one book. And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second are similarly one book. After these there is the book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, next Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Job follows, then the Prophets, the twelve being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle, one book; afterwards, Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament.

Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.

These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me.’

But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics, who write them when they choose, bestowing upon them their approbation, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple.[1]

Let me simply highlight two significant points. This letter represents one of the earliest lists of the writings that came to be recognized by the church as divinely inspired and therefore canonical. For Athanasius, the list that he provides is not simply his own personal opinion but indeed comprises the Canon as affirmed by the church catholic. It is therefore instructive to note that Athanasius clearly distinguishes between the canonical books of Scripture and other apocryphal books that he acknowledges as useful for instruction but – and he is adamant on this point – are not to be equated with the unique authority of the canonical books. Interestingly, the books that Athanasius identifies as apocryphal and non-canonical are precisely those that many Roman Catholics would accuse Protestants of excising from the Canon! Clearly, that is not the case. The Protestant Canon, rather than that of the Church of Rome, is faithful to the Athanasian list.

Second, (and this should not be overlooked) Athanasius explicitly asserts that in the canonical books of Scripture “alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness”. As though to emphasize this point, Athanasius stresses that no one should either add or subtract anything from these writings, implying that he attributed to his list of canonical books an unparalleled authority over the church’s faith and practice. Indeed, as he had much earlier in his career affirmed, Athanasius resolutely believed that “the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth”. What is this except sola Scriptura? It would seem, therefore, that the charge of sola Scriptura as a Protestant innovation is quite erroneous.

At this point, someone will, no doubt, accuse me of “cutting and pasting” these quotes and using them in a way that Athanasius would have found objectionable. This is indeed the criticism made in one particular article in which the author argues that an approach such as mine “transforms St. Athanasius into a ‘Bible-only’ Christian by selecting passages which speak highly of the inspiration and authority of Sacred Scripture while Nicaea_icondownplaying and even ignoring passages which speak equally forceful on the authorities of Tradition and Church”. The author speaks for many when he contends, conversely, that “St. Athanasius brings together Scripture and the teaching Church…There is no such thing as an isolated reading of Scripture in the faith of St. Athanasius…St. Athanasius finds a private reading of Scripture apart from the traditional faith of the Catholic Church as the fatal flaw of heretics”.

This objection, though common, trades on a grossly distorted caricature of what sola Scriptura actually means. Sola Scriptura does not mean “Scripture all by itself” (which is actually solo or nuda Scriptura), but rather Scripture as interpreted by but nevertheless free to correct the church and its tradition. Sola Scriptura does not pit Scripture against church and tradition, rather it reorders them into their proper places of authority. Sola Scriptura fully recognizes the authority of the church and its interpretive tradition, but since it also recognizes that the church consists of interpreters that are fallible and prone to error, it accords to Scripture, as the divinely appointed locus of God’s discourse, the authority to assert itself over the church and its tradition if and when necessary. This, I would argue, is faithful not only to Athanasius’ view but also to the conviction shared by the other orthodox fathers. Church historian J.N.D. Kelly explains:

With two main differences the attitude to Scripture and tradition…became classic in the Church of the third and fourth centuries. These differences were: (a) with the passing of the Gnostic menace, the hesitation sometimes evinced by Irenaeus, and to a rather greater degree by Tertullian, about appealing directly to Scripture disappeared; and (b) as a result of developments in the Church’s institutional life the basis of tradition became broader and more explicit. The supreme doctrinal authority remained, of course, the original revelation given by Christ and communicated to the Church by His apostles. This was the divine or apostolic ‘tradition’ (παράδοσις; traditio) in the strict sense of the word. It was with reference to this that Cyprian in the third century could speak of ‘the root and source of the dominical tradition’, or of ‘the fountain-head and source of the divine tradition’, and that Athanasius in the fourth could point to ‘the tradition … which the Lord gave and the apostles proclaimed’ as the Church’s foundation-stone. That this was embodied, however, in Holy Scripture, and found a parallel outlet in the Church’s general unwritten teaching and liturgical life, was taken for granted, and the use of the term ‘tradition’, with or without such qualifications as ‘ecclesiastical’ or ‘of the fathers’, to describe this latter medium now became increasingly common.

There is little need to dwell on the absolute authority accorded to Scripture as a doctrinal norm. It was the Bible, declared Clement of Alexandria about a.d. 200, which, as interpreted by the Church, was the source of Christian teaching. His greater disciple Origen was a thorough-going Biblicist who appealed again and again to Scripture as the decisive criterion of dogma. The Church drew her catechetical material, he stated, from the prophets, the gospels and the apostles’ writings; her faith, he suggested, was buttressed by Holy Scripture supported by common sense. ‘The holy and inspired Scriptures’, wrote Athanasius a century later, ‘are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth’; while his contemporary, Cyril of Jerusalem, laid it down that ‘with regard to the divine and saving mysteries of faith no doctrine, however trivial, may be taught without the backing of the divine Scriptures.… For our saving faith derives its force, not from capricious reasonings, but from what may be proved out of the Bible.’ Later in the same century John Chrysostom bade his congregation seek no other teacher than the oracles of God; everything was straightforward and clear in the Bible, and the sum of necessary knowledge could be extracted from it. In the West Augustine declared that ‘in the plain teaching of Scripture we find all that concerns our belief and moral conduct’; while a little later Vincent of Lérins (c. 450) took it as an axiom the Scriptural canon was ‘sufficient, and more than sufficient, for all purposes’…

Yet, if the concept of tradition was expanded and made more concrete in these ways, the estimate of its position vis-à-vis Scripture as a doctrinal norm remained basically unaltered. The clearest token of the prestige enjoyed by the latter is the fact that almost the entire theological effort of the fathers, whether their aims were polemical or constructive, was expended upon what amounted to the exposition of the Bible. Further, it was everywhere taken for granted that, for any doctrine to win acceptance, it had first to establish its Scriptural basis. A striking illustration is the difficulty which champions of novel theological terms like ὁμοούσιος (‘of the same substance’), or again ἀγέννητος (‘ingenerate’ or ‘self-existent’) and ἄναρχος (‘without beginning’), experienced in getting these descriptions of the Son’s relationship to the Father, or of God’s eternal being, generally admitted. They had to meet the damning objection, advanced in conservative as well as heretical quarters, that they were not to be found in the Bible.

In the end they could only quell opposition by pointing out (Athanasius in the one case, and Gregory of Nazianzus in the other) that, even if the terms themselves were non-Scriptural, the meaning they conveyed was exactly that of Holy Writ. The creed itself, according to Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine and Cassian, was a compendium of Scripture. An exception to this general attitude might seem to be Basil’s reliance, mentioned above, upon tradition as embedded in the liturgy, rather than upon Scripture, to demonstrate the full deity of the Holy Spirit. Even he, however, makes it crystal clear, in the very discussion in question, that there is no contradiction between unwritten tradition and the gospel, for in their traditionally transmitted teaching the fathers have only been following what Scripture itself implies. Indeed, all the instances of unwritten tradition lacking Scriptural support which the early theologians mention will be found, on examination, to refer to matters of observance and practice (e.g. triple immersion in baptism; turning East for prayer) rather than of doctrine as such, although sometimes they are matters (e.g. infant baptism; prayers for the dead) in which doctrine is involved.[3]

To put it succinctly, what Kelly summarizes here concerning the church’s view of Scripture in the first five centuries of its history is, quite simply, sola Scriptura. To those who may balk at this claim, I would merely repeat what I stated earlier: sola Scriptura does not mean Scripture against the church and its tradition but rather Scripture as correctly interpreted by the church and its tradition. As Kelly makes clear, however, the church and its tradition, as interpreters, were merely servants of and under the “absolute authority accorded to Scripture”. As Kelly notes further, the fourth century debates over the Nicene homoousion are a case in point: it was precisely because homoousion was an extra-biblical word that so many in the church were reluctant to accept it. This, indeed, is evidence that the early church, by and large, regarded its developing tradition not as an independent source of revelation (for otherwise Nicaea’s use of the homoousion should have been immediately and unquestionably accepted) but rather as subordinate to the authority of the revelation uniquely attested in the inspired writings of canonical Scripture. So committed to Scripture’s absolute authority was the fourth-century church that many within it were initially opposed to adopting a non-biblical word, even though that word provided a potent defense against the Arian heresy. This points to the fact that whatever support the church fathers sought in tradition, apostolic succession, church authority, etc. to expound and defend the orthodox faith, they appealed to these various sources of authority as ultimately faithful yet subservient witnesses to the divine authority uniquely mediated through the inspired writings of Scripture alone. Hence, sola Scriptura.

Conclusion

It seems fairly evident that not only was sola Scriptura not a heretical or aberrant invention of the Reformers but rather a retrieval of the basic pattern of authority under which the patristic church operated. Martin Luther and John Calvin were both deeply committed not to Scripture interpreted privately or in isolation but rather to Scripture interpreted in accordance with the church catholic, especially that of the first five centuries of church history. Why then did they use sola Scriptura to justify their protests and proposed reforms of the medieval church and its tradition? It was simply because they rightly discerned thatluther_und_calvin_kirchenfenster_evangelische_stadtkirche_wiesloch1 whereas in the days of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine, and the other orthodox fathers there was, as Kelly states, “no contradiction between unwritten tradition and the gospel”, there had subsequently developed a contradiction between Scripture interpreted by early church tradition and Scripture interpreted by later church tradition. Their protest against Rome was not that Scripture opposed all tradition but rather that later medieval tradition opposed the way that the early orthodox tradition had interpreted Scripture. As such, they did not call the church to abandon its tradition and thereby leave biblical interpretation to the whims and fancies of every individual reader. Rather, they called the church to purge the deviant accretions that it had allowed to accumulate over time and to return to the apostolic faith delivered once and for all in Scripture and faithfully passed down by the early orthodox church and its authoritative tradition. This is what sola Scriptura really means, and this is why it truly represents “the faith of our fathers”.

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[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. Festal Letters. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 551–552.

[2] Ibid., p.4.

[3] Kelly, J.N.D., 1977. Early Christian Doctrines Fifth, Revised., London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury. pp.41-43, 46-47.